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Royal Ballet

‘Scénes de Ballet’, Awakening from ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, Thais pas de deux, ‘Five Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan’, ‘Daphnis and Chloe’

Royal return of Ashton

by Ana Abad-Carles

November 13, 2004 -- Royal Opera House, London

On Saturday, the Royal Ballet presented the third of its Ashton Centenary programmes, a mixed bill devoted entirely to the choreographer marked the occasion. It was a long time since the audiences at the Royal Opera House had had the opportunity to see so much of Ashton’s work.

The programme opened with “Scénes de Ballet”, a masterpiece and Ashton’s favourite ballet among his plotless pieces. Stravinsky used to quote the famous anecdote in which Mallarmé said that a poem was made with verses, not ideas, to illustrate his creed on what music should be like. Ashton would also take on this anecdote to illustrate his belief in choreography: “It is about steps and not ideas”.

”Scénes de Ballet” was created in 1948 for Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes, the ballet is an exercise in spatial geometry and its choreographic possibilities. Unlike “Symphonic Variations,” though, the ballet has always been something of a cult ballet for Ashton lovers, rather than an instant success with the general audience. Maybe that circumstance has changed somehow due to the fact that Stravinsky’s music does not sound nowadays as radical as it did fifty years ago. The reception of the piece on Saturday was rapturous and it has to be said to the Royal Ballet’s credit that the performance was well rehearsed and performed by the whole ensemble. Jaimie Tapper was making her debut in the ballerina role and it was a welcome debut indeed! Her entrance was beautifully executed and, after a couple of moments of hesitation, she managed to show an assurance and sense of style that is rare in the ballerinas of the company nowadays. She glowed in the role and she looked not only beautiful and technically accomplished, but also sophisticated and glamorous, aspects which are vital to her variations, especially the second one. Her cavalier was Yohei Sasaki who also looked assured and managed to execute his series of tour en l’airs perfectly during his variation.

However, the glory of “Scénes de Ballet” lies in the evolutions Ashton created for the corps de ballet. They are never ending. It does not matter how many times one has seen the piece, there is always something new to look at, a whole series of enchaînments that had been overlooked in previous viewings, for the pace of the choreography and its inventiveness flows effortlessly with the music’s ever changing rhythms. It would be wonderful to be able to study this piece in depth in order to establish the differences between those two unrivalled classicists of the twentieth century, Ashton and Balanchine. Both tended to avoid each other’s musical choices and “Scénes de Ballet” is one of those rare instances where one can spot the different musicalities of both choreographers in the treatment of Stravinsky’s music.

Whereas Balanchine’s renderings were always perfect choreographic translations of the music, Ashton’s was a playful game between dancers and composer. Whereas Balanchine used to emphasise the lower part of the body, Ashton placed the emphasis in the torsos. The wonderful moments when heads nod, wrists bend and feet serve as real percussion for the musical accents are unique examples of the choreographer’s inventiveness. The positions for the various groupings, the idea behind those groupings in that they create a different ballet depending on the position of the viewer, the evolutions, entrances and exits are just among some of the best choreographic patterns ever created.

”Scènes de Ballet” was created as a homage to “The Sleeping Beauty” and the idea of classicism that this ballet embodied. It is reassuring to see the company performing the work so thoroughly. It has not always been the case and one can only hope that the ballet will continue being the source of inspiration for a new generation of artists that it deserves to be. It is Ashton at its best, at its most inventive, at its most daring and sophisticated. As Antoinette Sibley’s once described it: “It’s a connoisseur's ballet, it’s our ballet, it’s Fred's ballet”.

The second part of the programme was devoted to a series of divertissements that once again, showcased the variety of Ashton’s output.

The Awakening Pas de Deux from “The Sleeping Beauty” dates from the Ashton and de Valois’s production in the sixties. It is a shame that it was taken out of the ballet in the eighties and that it has not been inserted back where it belongs. Bussell and Cope tried to give it the required warmth, but Bussell is not a perfect example of an Ashton ballerina and the piece did not transmit the poetry at its core. The pas de deux should be performed right after Aurora is awakened by her Prince and it provides a beautiful and poetic transition into her wedding in the 3rd Act. Ashton was an unashamed romantic and he decided to provide Aurora and Florimund with a pas de deux in which to express and develop their love. Without this context, it is difficult to translate onto the stage in those 5 minutes the whole emotional range that the pas de deux provides. It is the chance Ashton gave his couple to look at each other for the first time and exchange steps, to test their suitability and to actually fall in love. It is a beautiful pas de deux and, though it is true that its vocabulary may feel a bit at odds with Petipa’s, I wish the duet was reinserted in the complete ballet if the company decides – as it should - to go back to the English reading of the ballet in a near future.

Thaïs pas de deux was created for a gala for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. It made Nureyev pronounce the famous statement referring to Ashton: “the bastard, he’s done it again!”. He meant, obviously, that Ashton had created another masterpiece. Sarah Lamb took on Sibley’s role and got the biggest ovation in the whole afternoon. Beautiful, insinuating, sophisticated, decadent, she embodied the abandon of Ashton’s piece with an assurance and understanding that made us believe that we were witnessing the emergence of a true Ashton ballerina. Federico Bonelli was correct and partnered her beautifully, but it was her performance that really brought the piece alive.

The “Devil’s Holiday” variation was an example of a lost work by Ashton, revived by Frederick Franklin. The variation is absolutely wonderful. It goes to show what the young Ashton could achieve even in his early years, and in a territory where he did not usually feel at ease, male choreography. The pas de deux was nearer what we know of Ashton at his most lyrical and romantic. The performance by Martin Harvey had character and projection and Laura Morera was correct, but did not seem to project those lines as far they should be.

”Five Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan” is Ashton at his most elegiac and nostalgic. In his simple and deep felt homage to one of his muses, he allowed us to share his memories of what this great artist was like on stage, how she was able to transform the simplest of movements into a grand theatrical experience. Tamara Rojo performed the pieces with emotion and dramatic impetus; however, I think Rojo needs maturity in order to give the ballet the necessary weight. On the other hand, having witnessed Rojo tackle new roles, maybe she already has!

Finally, “Voices of Spring” with Mara Galeazzi and Viacheslav Samodurov, was a fitting end to this part of the programme. Intoxicatingly joyful and playful, it reminded us of Ashton’s love for fun. The performance seemed a bit under rehearsed, but by the end of it, both dancers seemed to be having so much fun that they managed to make us feel it too.

The final piece of the programme was “Daphnis and Chloe”. The ballet was revived last year and on this occasion the whole company gave a much better rendering of the piece than less than a year ago. At that time, the corps in the first scene seemed unable to breathe Ashton’s simple steps into the music and it seemed as if they were unable to make simple straight lines. Either the ballet had been under rehearsed or the lack of Ashton’s choreography within the repertoire made it impossible for the dancers to grasp his musicality and sense of phrasing. Something similar was seen in their recent rendition of "Sylvia". On this occasion, the first scene was beautifully danced and the main characters performed by Alina Cojocaru, Federico Bonelli, Thiago Soares and Marianela Núñez were well danced.

There are many people who find the piece boring. I personally find it inspiring, if only for the fact that it is the only satisfactory production of Ravel’s music. And how beautiful that music is!

The moment when the company still showed lack of brilliance was in the final dance which should be the climax of the ballet. Once again, there needs to be more attention to the work of the corps as a unified entity, there has to be a common aim, a common understanding of the intentions of the choreographer. The phrasing, the musicality cannot fail in this finale. Cojocaru was not big enough at this moment, she did not grow and she did not glow. She looked beautiful throughout the piece, but the final moments eluded her.

Overall a wonderful afternoon. It is ironic that we have to thank the Royal Ballet for providing us with this opportunity to see Ashton's works once again. It would be unthinkable to thank New York City Ballet for preserving and presenting Balanchine’s. But, after decades of neglect, it is wonderful to see a new generation discovering and cherishing those works. It is also reassuring to see the names of the coaches returning to the Royal Ballet to pass onto the new generations of dancers their own experiences of the roles. Once again, credit should be given to Monica Mason for this achievement.

Edited by Jeff.

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